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When the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies square off in Monday's annual matinee celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., both teams might feel like they're looking in the mirror. In a league trending toward smaller lineups, the Pacers and Grizzlies feature inside-out offenses built around a pair of quality big men. Those post players also anchor elite defenses.
There's one key difference between the two teams, however, and it's one that could determine Memphis' direction before the trade deadline -- the Grizzlies are stuck in the loaded Western Conference, while Indiana has an easier playoff path in the East.
Heading Opposite Directions
In November, it looked like the Grizzlies might render such concerns moot by joining the West's elite. Along with the L.A. Clippers, Memphis was the surprise of the early season, starting 12-2 behind a suddenly elite offense. After rating no better than average in offensive rating during their current run of contention, the Grizzlies used unexpectedly hot shooting to surge to fifth in the league in offensive rating in November.
Whereas the Clippers were able to maintain and even improve upon their own fast start, Memphis' proved to be a fluke. (Or maybe, more appropriately for a team that used to play in the Pyramid, a mirage.) The Grizzlies' offense collapsed in December, sinking to 28th in the NBA, but they were able to compensate by tying -- with Indiana, naturally -- for the second-best defense on a per-possession basis.
Memphis' offense has rebounded a bit in January, but the defense has lacked the same bite. That's why the Grizzlies were beaten soundly in three consecutive 20-point losses last week. The distraction of trade rumors was blamed, but it's difficult to discern why Memphis was able to shake off the rumors for a hard-fought overtime win over San Antonio right before the losing streak. More realistically, the Grizzlies have such a thin margin of error with their current offense that they are vulnerable to blowouts when one thing -- like Rudy Gay's absence due to personal reasons against the Clippers -- goes wrong against elite opposition.
Over in the East, the Pacers have been traversing the opposite path. Their offensive drought lasted the entire month of November, when they struggled to replace Danny Granger's production. Paul George stumbled in a leading role, a rebuilt bench could not score enough to stay on the floor and Indiana survived a 28th-ranked offense only on the strength of its own defense.
Since then, George has found his footing and emerged as an All-Star candidate, and the bench has been at least adequate. So while Roy Hibbert's scoring slump shows no signs of abating, the Pacers have improved to 22nd in offensive rating since Dec. 1. While that might not sound impressive on its own, when combined with the NBA's best defense, a merely adequate scoring attack has allowed the team to go 18-8 in that span.
Better Team; Worse Conference
Despite the fact that Indiana has been better at both ends than Memphis since the start of December, the Grizzlies still rate as the stronger team over the course of the season. Even the Hollinger Power Rankings, which give heavy weight to recent performance, put Memphis ahead. But Indiana still has the better chance of making noise in the playoffs.
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Because the top three teams in the West are so good, the Grizzlies basically have no chance of finishing any higher than fourth in the standings. Using a combination of preseason lines (35 percent) and schedule-adjusted point differential (65 percent) to simulate the remainder of the season, Memphis only grabs a top-three seed about five percent of the time. Indiana, with an average win total some four games lower (52.7 vs. 47.5), finishes second in the East nearly seven percent of the time and grabs a top-three seed seven times as frequently as the Grizzlies.
To get to the Western Conference finals, Memphis will likely have to upset one of the leaders -- L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City or San Antonio (teams they've gone 2-4 against this season) -- without the benefit of home-court advantage. Reaching the NBA Finals would probably mean beating two of the three. The Pacers' path to the NBA Finals will probably go through Miami at some point, but if the Heat land the top seed, Indiana can put off a possible matchup until the Eastern Conference finals by finishing second or third.
Add it up, and the simulation shows the Pacers as more likely to reach the conference finals (22.2 percent to Memphis' 15.2 percent) and the NBA Finals (8.5 percent to Memphis' 4.1 percent). Since the Hollinger Playoff Odds put less weight on the Grizzlies' hot November and more on their recent losses, they are even less optimistic about Memphis' chances of getting to the NBA Finals: 4.3 percent, vs. 8.7 percent for Indiana.
If MLK Day seems a bit early to be worrying about winning in June, it's not for Per Diem founder John Hollinger and his colleagues in the Grizzlies' front office. Part of what they must weigh as they consider possibly trading Gay or Zach Randolph for relief from the luxury tax is just what kind of contender they might be breaking up.
NBA Trade Machine
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Earlier this season, Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about teams in the NBA's second tier like Indiana and Memphis and quoted Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey's philosophy that teams with "even a five percent chance of winning the title" should be focused on a championship. Well, the Grizzlies aren't quite there. Depending on the calculations, their odds of winning it all are somewhere around two or three percent, and those figures have ticked downward all season.
That might be fine for a team like Indiana, which has a young lineup and no pressing financial concerns. The only trade rumors involving the Pacers have centered around Granger, since the team has been able to succeed without him. Things are different for Memphis, which is facing the specter of likely paying the luxury tax for the next three seasons should it not make some kind of move.
It's understandable that Memphis coach Lionel Hollins wants to keep his team together. Hollins isn't responsible for signing a luxury-tax check that will look awfully pricey if the Grizzlies bow out in the second round of the playoffs, or even in the first round for the second consecutive year. Ultimately, this Memphis squad looks too flawed offensively to compete with three West teams that could all win 60 games. That's why the Grizzlies should look to move Gay or Randolph now, if they can find the right deal, and ensure the continued viability of their core rather than selling out for a championship that probably isn't coming.